Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Peter Pan Fandom

There are certain things in life we can eventually outgrow. Things like an appetite for strained squash, or a fascination with strangers’ eyeglasses, or our affinity for wearing Underoos. Me, I’d always hoped I would outgrow my chicken legs, but unfortunately, a scrawny lower body was tattooed on my DNA, sentencing me to a lifetime of extra-saggy shorts and the concealment of fully bloused out jeans.

But what about being a sports fan? Is that something we can – or, more to the point, should – outgrow?

To be a fan is, in a lot of ways, to be a child. Your welfare and wellbeing, your very existence, is entirely dependent on the actions of others. There’s a lot of screaming and pouting when things don’t go your way. You have no perspective, viewing the world through your own, single-minded prism. And what you obsess over, what sets off tantrums and leads to stomping feet and streaming tears, is typically nothing more than a meaningless playground game.

When you’re a kid, though, there’s no harm in getting worked up and crying over such inconsequential matters. In fact, it’s a necessity, a means to mature and develop, and it’d be detrimental in the long run to bypass these growing pains. But at some point, don’t you have to take that next step in the maturation process and shift your energy towards bigger and better things?

I bring this up because I recently celebrated—or, more accurately, was unable to deny the occurrence of—my 35th birthday, and as with any life cycle event, it triggered one of those big-picture, self evaluation montages, like something you’d see in a movie. (Had there been a beach nearby, I would’ve undoubtedly gone there to stare out into the ocean, the fork-in-the-road moments of my past flashing on screen as Colin Hay’s "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin" played over the top of them.) And what became evident was that, while my age continues to change, I really haven’t. My patterns, my priorities, and above all else, my experience of life, they’re all essentially the same as they’ve always been. In too many ways, I’m like a 15-year-old hiding in a 35-year-old’s body (minus the legs), and I’m almost certain that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

This whole dynamic was never more on display than it was last month when the Texas Longhorns played their annual holy war against hated rival Oklahoma. An obsessively irrational UT fan since birth, watching the Horns is typically a hurt-so-good experience for me: I’m miserable throughout, yet I wouldn’t miss it for the world. But looking back, this was one game during which I would’ve happily spent the entire day atoning for all of my sins. Ugly from the opening kick, it got progressively worse and worse, my soul getting sadistically shanked with each passing Sooner touchdown.

Throughout the devastation, I was commiserating long distance with my cousin, Andrew, who’s as insane about UT sports as I am. But unlike me, Andrew is much more of an adult, with real, meaningful commitments and responsibilities—a wife, a successful career, and two young children at home. And as halftime mercifully approached, with the Longhorns buried beneath a seemingly insurmountable deficit, he decided to tap out.

“I’ve got more important things to do,” he said.

Which, in turn, made me ask myself, “Shouldn’t I?”

After all, my father had eventually decided that he should. His drug of choice was the Dallas Cowboys, and he’d been addicted to them since he was a little boy. It was an inherited addiction from his father, who had season tickets and instilled in him that going to Cowboys games was how you spent your Sunday afternoons, and that Thanksgivings were as much about Randy White and Roger Staubach as they were about family bonding and tryptophan-induced naps.

But over time, my dad’s priorities steadily evolved, and his devotion to his team evolved with them. He got married and had kids and started a business, all of which required his undivided attention. Soon, the Cowboys weren’t playing the most important games 
anymore—his sons were, on basketball courts and tee ball fields, and those became the centerpiece of his weekend schedule. What ultimately cut the cord was Jerry Jones’ unceremonious dumping of legendary coach Tom Landry, but in reality, that just served to expedite the divorce that the two parties had been heading towards all along. Now, my father’s nothing more than a casual observer. He enjoys watching games, but he no longer lives and dies with their outcomes.

And there are times when I’m envious of that. There are times when I wish I could be more neutral, when I wish I could consume it all in the same unattached way I consume other entertainment, because that’s probably all it should be—entertainment. It’s embarrassing to admit how much my teams matter to me, how much I really care, and it’s even more embarrassing to suffer through the sports equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder every time they lose. Something so meaningless shouldn’t mean so much.

But whenever I contemplate taking a more even-handed approach, I’m reminded of my experiences in the fall of 2005, when my life was even more scatterbrained that it is right now. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have anyplace to go, and I didn’t have anybody who was in the mood to give me details over lunch. But what I did have was the Texas Longhorns. And while I may have been lost Sunday through Friday, come Saturday afternoon, my world had a purpose. For three-and-a-half hours, those games, that team…they gave me something to look forward to, something to be a part of, something to be hopeful about. And when I think back now, in a lot of ways those few months may have been the worst of times for me, but Texas winning the national championship also made them some of the best.

And therein lies the rub. Everything we do in every facet of life is grounded in basic emotional physics—the further you stray from the center, the more you expose yourself to the extremes, and the only way to experience the highest of highs is to chance the fallout of the lowest of lows. Just look at dating. Truly connecting with someone requires the risk of heartbreak, but if you’re unwilling to take that risk, the best you can hope for is to have a bunch of meaningless, no-strings-attached romantic interludes while being the envy of all of your committed friends, and really, how fulfilling would that be?

Put more convincingly, there’s the poker table wisdom of Rounders’ Mike McDermott: “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle—but you can’t win much, either.”

So I’m stuck struggling with this love/hate tug-of-war with my fandom—one side that thinks I should let go, one side that wants to keep pulling on that rope, no matter how often I end up face down in a pool of mud. But honestly, there are times I’m unsure if I even have a say in the matter. Despite being down 36-2 in that game against Oklahoma, there was still a part of me that thought the Longhorns could rally. It was probably the part that, as a Houston Oilers fan in 1993, got sucker-punched by the Buffalo Bills erasing a 32-point, third quarter deficit to knock the Oilers out of the playoffs, and was now ready for retribution.

And apparently, I wasn’t alone. Andrew, who’d turned the game off at halftime, was now out tending to his real responsibilities, but he hadn’t fully moved on yet, either. We were still going back and forth, complaining to and consoling each other, trying to make sense of the trauma we’d just been through, neither of us ready to let go, no matter how hopeless or ridiculous it all seemed. And before he headed back into the house to be with his family, we sat together like we’d done since we were kids, each of our lives in a sense suspended, while I gave him the second half play-by-play over the phone.

True love dies hard.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?